Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Primrose and proper gardening (Plant Portrait XII*)


For me Robin Lane Fox's Thoughtful Gardening is an irritating read. His writing style is overly constructed and constrained (and I have no doubt he would find mine ill-formed and erratic). His dogmatism is annoying, even when he holds the same views as me - like most of us I'm generally happy with an opinionated writer who thinks the way I do.

To the person who recommended the book to me, apologies. I tried to like it. To the many I'm sure who have read it and found it inspiring, ignore my rant. For all my dislike, I read the book through. In fact I quite enjoyed riling and reacting to its style and substance.

To be fair, there is good in the book, including a lovely essay on how flowers sustained author Katherine Mansfield's in her last years and on plant obsessions like 'snow dropping' (for Galanthus). There are intriguing portraits of gardens I must now visit. Amid the smugness and haughtiness I find so unattractive, there is self-defacing humour and some charming one-liners, such as "[To Plato] ideas...were more divinely beautiful, certainly more beautiful than Chemical Aldous's [Huxley, writing after taking mescaline) perception of an iris" and in response to Rosemary Verey's suggestion that if your children are facing an examination they be given angelica (for inspiration), red clover (for industry) and pink cherry blossom (for education), "From my practical observations, the young recipients' first thought would be to try to smoke them".

Less appealing, and enough to tarnish my persisting memory of the book and its author, are things like the easy swipes at climate change (we've had a few frosts in recent years to you shove your advice about the world getting warmer and don't you try to suggest we need to plant anything different), refusing to share the garden with any of the local wildlife (badger, fox or any animal the Royal Horticultural Society promotes as good for the garden), and dismissing organic gardening (while I share his scepticism on this matter, I'm a little more nuanced in my response than saying I'll use whatever nasty chemicals I want because I need to get rid of that weed in my garden, and that's that).

Then there is the exception he takes to trends and fashions, only to willingly create his own in the next paragraph. Perhaps I'm too post-modern for my own good.

But the big one, the one that took my goat and tethered it far from reality was his test of whether you are a thoughtful gardener. Happily, for those who don't want to read the whole book, this comes up in the introduction.

After protesting, me thinks, a little too much about how wise and worldly gardeners can be, he reveals his test. This is the Turing moment - the great Alan Turing devised a test for distinguishing between a machine and the kind of intelligent behaviour exhibited by a human - and at last, we can tell who is a thoughtful gardener and who is not. The big question in life.

Lane Fox has asked this of his students and various others, over 35 years of teaching. Some have read poetry, he says, some have distinctions in plant sciences, but this is the one true test. This is the way to dismiss the large majority of humankind who may be gardeners but not thoughtfully so.


You simply ask, what does a primrose look like? That's Primula, a genus of small plants with variously coloured flowers that finds its way into rock gardens, perennial borders and sometimes into pots inside the house. There are some stunners, like Primula vialii and Primula capitata (which I've illustrated here, from Kew Gardens, again), but I suspect many who 'know what a primrose looks like' would be unfamilar with these two examples.

When asked this penetrating question, most shrugged and moved on. Some fought back, such as a 'sharp-eyed young lady' who told him it was a pedantic question, and that she sees the same flowers but doesn't put 'academic names on them'. Another said it was a pretty flower and found in spring, but failed in his description of it. A professor of logic tried to let Lane Fox down gently by confessing, after being told the story of the sharp-eyed young lady, that he in fact didn't know the plant. Later when our author gave him a bloom he responded with an article about how words have different meanings and references depending what we know about them or the object they describe.

I'm assuming Robin Lane Fox is trying to make the valid point that knowing what something is, or what it is called, adds information and appreciation of the object before us. It provides connections to all kinds of knowledge about the thing that can make life more pleasant, more stimulating and perhaps even better. This is a reasonable point. 

But, the corollary isn't that if one doesn't know what a Primose looks like, or a black hole, or a paradox, or murder (you can read Dostoevsky for this) or Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate (one of the key chemicals in the photosynthetic pathway that allows the Primrose to live and grow by producing sugars using the sun's energy), one is a dunce. 

Moreover, and I might be going a little Buddhist here, it would seem to be the test of a truly enlightened gardener/thinker/scientist/poet that they themselves do not need to test those around them or display their own knowledge like the tail of a peacock, or the blooms of a Primrose. Those things, the tail and the petals, are all about sex and that barely gets a mention (apart from a cameo by female weevils and a chapter on the masculinity of English landscapes) in this primrose and proper book. 


Next on my horticultural reading pile is Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden by George McKay. It was described by Lia Leendertz in The Guardian as "uncomfortable in places, but hugely thought provoking'.  I expect this to be an entirely different kind of book.

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.

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